The start to the 2016-17 season couldn't have been worse. Losing eight of 10 is never good, but the Wizards' biggest free-agent acquistion sat after the biggest free-agent fish in the market they'd targeted for two years wouldn't even consent to a meeting.
It's easy to pile on and declare that it's over -- even with 72 games left -- and start the bonfire. But that's not the behavior of a smart team if it truly believes in the pieces it has in place to succeed. They weather the storm.
After a ripping of the Atlanta Hawks 112-86 on their own floor Friday to improve to 26-20, how ridiculous does all of that sound in hindsight? They've won 14 in a row at Verizon Center, have the season series edge over the Hawks (2-1), Boston Celtics (2-1), Charlotte Hornets (2-0), Chicago Bulls (2-1), New York Knicks (2-0), have clinched it with the Milwaukee Bucks (3-1) and are even with the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers (1-1).
Don't be mistaken, players wondered out loud what was happening during those early-season fails, too, especially after losing Nov. 16 at the Philadelphia 76ers who didn't have Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jahlil Okafor playing on a minutes restriction.
But when a team is down, espeically this one with their recent history of ups and downs, proclaiming they're finished is the predictable next step. The easiest job in sports is that of an armchair front office expert. Like playing online poker with fake currency, there's no real pressure involved if you bust out.
Wall isn't going anywhere while he's still under contract. To suggest the Wizards trade him is absurd because he makes all of those around him better. Don't give Bradley Beal that $128 million extension as opposed to what? Letting a 23-year-old leave for nothing in return? So how would that improve the team? Replace him with Dwyane Wade who was the next best player on the market at his position? Exactly how is Wade, who can't shoot threes and is on his last legs at 35, working out in Chicago?
After the Wizards whiffed on Kevin Durant who chose to join an already stacked team in the Golden State Warriors, Ian Mahinmi's signing still came as a surprise. That the backup center only has played 14 minutes this season, his lack of availability been a major disappointment. The next biggest acqusition, Andrew Nicholson, has been reduced to playing mostly garbage minutes like he did in Atlanta.
Pending the next tests on Mahinmi, he could be back after All-Star break to fortify the second unit behind Marcin Gortat which would make the Wizards so much better defensively. Trey Burke and Jason Smith are playing light years better. Tomas Satoransky, a 2012 draft pick in his first season, is back in the rotation and providing valuable time on the floor with Burke. And Kelly Oubre, who the Wizards traded up to draft in 2015, isn't a bust no more than Otto Porter who needed time to develop.
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Markieff Morris, who was acquired for what turned into a No. 13 pick in a weak 2016 draft for an average of $8 million a year through 2019, is playing the best basketball of his career. Gortat is a double-double machine who is playing his best since being acquired by the Wizards in a 2013 trade. The Wizards' starting five is as strong as any in the East outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers but a Mirza Teletovic over Nicholson or a Courtney Lee over Marcus Thornton would be worth a few more wins.
They key to what has been working is Wall and Beal and how first-year coach Scott Brooks has molded them into an elite backcourt once again. A lot of veterans were allowed to walk, in part, because president Ernie Grunfeld wanted to create a different chemistry. It became a matter of did Wall and Beal lack the leadership quality, or were they not allowed to put their imprint on the team as they saw fit? They have that freedom and confidence to do so and are having career-best seasons as a result.
Supposedly, Brooks was an isolation coach after his time in Oklahoma City. There's no isolation ball in D.C. He's gone away from predictable high pick-and-roll between Wall and Gortat and has opted for more motion, cross-screening, area and flare screening to space the floor for shooters. That's why Porter is the NBA's leader in three-point percentage. And it's why Oubre is flourishing at catch-and-shoot situations.
Brooks has convinced Porter not to always cut to keep the lane open for Wall and Beal to attack. He has used Porter more as a "stretch" option with Oubre as the small forward. He has had Burke and Satoransky share ball-handling duties with the second unit to take the pressure off of them both and they've responded. He has put Morris on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters to give it stability and so he can take advantage of backups at his position. He has put the 6-7 Oubre, with his 7-2 wingspan, on point guards.
Brooks tried to make Nicholson and Thornton work in his rotations, perhaps more than he should've, then didn't hesitate in changing gears unlike previous coach Randy Wittman. His five-year deal he signed for $35 million is proving to be a bargain.
Where this all ends up is anyone's guess. And that's what it really is -- guesswork -- with some of it being more educated than others.
No matter the parts, Brooks has cultivated a unit that plays hard, intelligently and he takes advantage of everyone's strengths.
This is no declaration that the season is a success because there are a lot of games left and they're only one significant injury away from trending in the other other direction. Finally, however, it can be said the Wizards have an identity, an attitude (see the "funeral game" vs. Boston), can handle pressure, prosperity and talk of a top four seed in the East now is a worthwhile discussion.
So much for trading the face of the franchise or tanking. An enormous responsibility would come with such a decision -- the opposite of a hot take.